There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.
There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.
Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.
What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.
This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.
Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.
Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.
In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.
His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.
In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.
An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.